Altitude sickness does not affect all visitors to Cusco, and susceptibility to altitude sickness is not dependent upon age, gender, or physical condition. However, people with heart or lung problems are at a higher risk. Symptoms may include headache, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea or constipation.
Our guides offer the following recommendations for visitors, to help them avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness:
- One tip that visitors will probably only hear in Cusco is to drink coca tea, which is an infusion made from coca leaves. Most of the hotels in Cusco offer their guest’s coca tea. Although it has not been scientifically proven that coca tea combats altitude sickness, many travelers have found that it certainly provides relief from the symptoms. In Cusco, the coca leaf is also available in candy, cookies, and brownies. Local people, particularly in rural communities, chew coca leaves. It is completely legal to drink coca tea in Peru.
- Stay hydrated: The first symptoms of altitude sickness, including headaches, are usually caused by dehydration. As mentioned above, the air in Cusco is extremely dry. You will lose a lot of moisture when above 3000 meters, and you should drink plenty of water.
- During your first few days at altitude, take things easy and walk slowly. Avoid participation in demanding physical activity and don’t set off on any long hikes until you feel more acclimated. There are plenty of sights around the main square you can enjoy during your first few days. We recommend that visitors to Cusco who plan to do a trek wait for at least two days, while their bodies acclimate by adjusting to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air.
- Avoid alcohol during your first few days at altitude. You’ll have plenty of opportunities later in your stay to try a traditional pisco sour.
- Some travelers choose to take Diamox 24 hours before arriving in Cusco. This drug is available at several of Cusco’s drugstores. It is also important that you consult your physician before traveling to Cusco, to receive advice and possible recommendations for altitude sickness tablets.
Avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness on treks
Many visitors to Cusco choose to see the Sacred Valley first. The valley is 2,000 feet (600 meters) lower than Cusco. It is possible to stay in Urubamba (2871 meters) or Ollantaytambo (2792 meters), from where it is a short journey to Machu Picchu, which at 2430 meters (7970 feet) is also significantly lower than Cusco. After their visit to Machu Picchu, these visitors return to the higher altitude of Cusco, where they will still need to take precautions in order to avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness.
If you are planning to do one of the many treks available in the Cusco region, such as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or the Salkantay route, the best plan would be to spend at least two days in Cusco prior to departure, to give you time to acclimate before facing altitudes of over 4000 meters (on day two of the Inca Trail, Warmiwañusca Pass lies at 4205 meters).
Cusco is one of South America’s great travel destinations, so you’ll certainly want to do what you can to avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness and get the most out of your time in that wonderful city!